Led by Colonel Scott McBride, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, we toured the marketplace. The first vendor we talked to informed us that he had been a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi army and was not happy to be reduced to selling vegetables. His view of the current government is bleak, but his face lit up when asked his opinion of the preceding regime. "Saddam good!" he proclaimed, giving the dead dictator an enthusiastic thumbs up. (I pointed out through an interpreter that one of the benefits of the change of regime is that he is able to freely express his feelings about the current government, something that he admitted was not possible in Saddam's time.)
In the next store we stopped at, McBride asked a merchant how he was doing. "How am I doing?" the man replied. "There is no fuel, no electricity, no hope. I'd rather be dead." I didn't hear the end of his litany of woe because I was too busy ducking after someone across the street took a potshot at us. As we walked out of the marketplace, we didn't see a single Iraqi policeman on duty. An American officer explained that this was because the police took heavy casualties anytime they ventured into this market.
A good deal of work obviously remains to be done before northern Iraq is pacified--the region now accounts for 61 percent of all attacks in Iraq (Baghdad Province is second with 17 percent). But even here you find pockets of normality. We were told that Tal Afar, which had been occupied by the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in 2005-06, remains relatively stable. We saw for ourselves the resounding success in Kirkuk, a city made up of Kurds and Sunni Arabs. While Bayji has been hit with nine major VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices) in the past two months, Kirkuk has gone four months without any successful such attacks. The Kirkuk marketplace is bustling and full of Iraqi police. The vibe here was as friendly as it had been hostile in Bayji. No one shot at us. The highlight of my visit was buying a small mountain of delicious baklava for less than $5 from a friendly storekeeper.
The security situation is just as good in western Iraq. Anbar Province, the scene of the heaviest fighting from 2003 to 2007, has become so quiet that Marines are complaining of boredom and their inability to earn combat action ribbons. The transformation in the southern Baghdad belt is less complete but in many cases just as dramatic. We visited the Yusufiya area, formerly known as the "Triangle of Death." Until 2007, there were few American troops here, and those were under siege. Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Rohling, commander of the 3rd battalion of the 101st Airborne Division, told us that the battalion which had garrisoned the area in 2006-07 had lost 29 men; their battalion commander had been wounded twice; and two of their men had been kidnapped by AQI. By contrast, Rohling's battalion had suffered only one death and 18 wounded since arriving in November. "The enemy has become very weak," an Iraqi army officer who works closely with the Americans told us. "They are breathing their last breath."
Similar sentiments were expressed in the Dora district of western Baghdad. A predominantly Sunni neighborhood, Dora had been the scene of heavy fighting in 2006, which turned it into a ghost town. The American-led offensive of 2007 produced a dramatic turnaround. Concrete walls were erected to limit access to the neighborhood while American and Iraqi security forces, working out of small bases, confronted the militants. The cumulative impact of such steps has been dramatic: Multi-National Division-Baghdad calculates that 75 percent of the capital is now under control, up from just 8 percent a year ago.
As we walked down Airplane Road, Dora's main drag, we saw shops and schools open, people in the streets, and trash being picked up. Even the concrete walls, potentially an eyesore, have been prettified with well-executed murals and trees planted alongside them. Housing prices are on the rise. We concluded our stroll with a gargantuan meal--what troops call a "goat grab" because you're supposed to grab hunks of lamb or goat with your hands--at the home of a Sunni physician who has been working with American forces to improve the neighborhood.